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July 6, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL East

First-Half MVPs

by Michael Jong

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With the first half of the season winding down, it is time to award the NL East players their first-half MVP awards. But to make things more interesting, let’s see how these said first-half MVPs match up to their respective contracts and whether some of the higher-priced members of the division are living up their deals. For each organization, the team leader in WARP will be listed along with their WARP total and 2011 salary. The team's highest-paid player in 2011 will also be listed likewise.

Philadelphia Phillies
First-half MVP: Cliff Lee (3.5 WARP, $11 million)
Highest-paid: Roy Halladay (2.9 WARP, $20 million) / Ryan Howard (1.9 WARP, $20 million)

It’s no surprise that the Phillies’ pitching staff dominating, and having their $120 million man atop the leaderboard as we approach All-Star break is a positive sign for Ruben Amaro and the rest of the Phillies’ front office. Remember when the 32-year-old Lee was “struggling” with a 3.94 ERA at the end of May? When you start mowing down players to the tune of 42 innings pitched and one run allowed in the following month, talk of a “disappointing start” tends to disappear. Ironically, Lee’s June actually appears to be the worst of his three months in terms of peripherals; he had his lowest strikeout rate, though that 19.7 percent rate in June is much closer to his 19.6 whiff rate from 2008-2010. Lee is walking more people than he has since his career transformation in 2008, but PECOTA expects both the strikeouts and walks to regress. PECOTA has him on pace to finish the season with 5.9 WARP, a solid return on an $11 million payday. But do not fear, non-Phillies fans, as Lee's five-year deal moved a lot of the first year's average annual value to years two through six, when Lee will be paid a hefty $25 million per year.

Of course, Lee was not the first starter the Phillies paid a hefty sum for. Halladay is on the first year of a $60 million deal through 2013, and he too is earning his keep. A 2.44 ERA and 2.68 SIERA suggest he is still pitching like the Halladay of old, and if PECOTA's 2.76 ERA for the rest of the season holds, he is in line to finish the season with 5.7 WARP, more or less matching his rotation mate.

As for Howard, it would be tough for him to match the expectations the front office made for him. A cursory glance at his .253/.353/.481 slash line might lead you to think he is performing a bit below the standard he set for himself, but PECOTA sees a player who has recorded a .302 TAv so far and is projected for a .300 TAv. In other words, he may be right at his expected level, and while a 3.6 WARP player by the end of the season is in no way disappointing, it is when he is 31 years old and is due at least $125 million for the next five seasons.

Atlanta Braves
First-half MVP: Derek Lowe (3.8 WARP, $15 million)
Highest-paid: Derek Lowe

Atlanta is the only team in the NL East that has matched its highest-paid player with its best performer by WARP. Lowe topping the WARP leaderboards is surprising; remember, he began the season with an impressive 22.5 percent whiff rate in April. But since that hot streak, he has struck out just 15.1 percent of batters faced, more in line with his career 15.6 percent mark. Still, that has helped him maintain a respectable 4.16 ERA backed by an even better 3.75 SIERA; it seems that the rest of his classic ground-ball game remains intact.

Still, those numbers do not appear to be those of a player who ranks second in baseball in WARP among starting pitchers behind Clayton Kershaw. Lowe’s ERA and WHIP (1.36) aren’t far off of what PECOTA projects the rest of the way (4.20 ERA, 1.39 WHIP). PECOTA predicts his strikeouts and walks will drop closer to normal levels, which suggests there won’t be much overall regression. It looks like Lowe has resembled who he is, and that may not be worthy of the title of first-half MVP despite the WARP total.

Washington Nationals
First-half MVP: Jordan Zimmermann (2.9 WARP, $0.42 million)
Highest-paid: Jayson Werth (1.7 WARP, $10 million)

The fact that Werth was not the Nationals’ best player in the first half per WARP is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it goes with the notion that Washington is improving its core and getting better as a team and becoming less dependent on pricy pickups. Of course, this does not change the fact that Werth has not yet lived up to the standards set by his seven-year, $126 million deal, but he has plenty of time to change that. Two things are bugging his offensive game:

Werth

K%

BB%

XB / H

ISO

BABIP

Pre-2011

24.7

12.3

0.772

.209

.333

2011

22.6

11.7

0.716

.161

.266

Werth's power and BABIP are down; the power loss is due to a decreased HR/FB rate and an increase in ground balls. With his doubles and triples occurring at a rate similar to his career mark, Werth needs some home-run regression to return to his career levels, and there are few reasons why that cannot happen. His BABIP is due for a spike: He won’t be hitting .190 on ground balls for much longer, given his career .254 average and the league's .232 mark.

As for Zimmermann, his 2011 season has been a bit of a reversal from his previous career rates. In his first 122 1/3 major-league innings pitched, he compiled a 3.48 SIERA, a far cry from his 4.71 ERA. Now he owns a shiny 2.63 ERA and a less impressive but strong 3.98 SIERA. Zimmermann has cut down on his strikeouts and walks and is getting a fair amount of luck on home runs allowed, but PECOTA foresees decent productivity. That Zimmermann is showing continued success following Tommy John surgery is yet another positive sign for the Nationals organization.

New York Mets
First-half MVP: Jose Reyes (4.0 WARP, $11 million)
Highest-paid: Carlos Beltran* (1.7 WARP, $20.7 million)
*Excluding Johan Santana's $22.5 million salary, since he has yet to play this season

The Mets have at times been known for not getting their money's worth on big free-agent contracts, but the two above players are not to be blamed for that, no matter how much Fred Wilpon wants to believe otherwise. Despite Beltran's recent injury history, it is hard to make the case that he was not worth his contract given how much other teams are willing to pay for wins. Beltran is having an excellent comeback season, posting a .281/.372/.491 slash and a .309 TAv that look inconspicuous compared to his career .282/.360/.494 line and .302 TAv. If the Mets do fall out of the playoff race, Beltran might be able to net a decent return, provided the Mets pay off some of his remaining salary.

Much has already been said about Reyes, his MVP-style success, and where he will go and for how much this offseason. Needless to say, he is playing out of his mind right now and, even with some regression, he should be involved in the MVP race at the end of the season. The Mets have invested their money wisely in Reyes, getting a good bang for their buck. Now if Jason Bay and Johan Santana could return to health and form, maybe the Mets can erase the stigma of foolhardy spending.

Florida Marlins
First-half MVP: Gaby Sanchez (2.6 WARP, $0.43 million)
Highest-paid: Hanley Ramirez (0.3 WARP, $11 million)

On the other hand, the Marlins are well-known for being thrifty and finding value in the least-likely places. It figures that the team's All-Star Game representative is a completely unassuming 27-year-old first baseman who was never much of a prospect. While Logan Morrison and Mike Stanton get all the praise and attention among the Marlins’ 2010 rookie class, Sanchez has been the consistent force. Morrison and Stanton have each taken time off for injury, but Sanchez has plugged along, making every start and batting a quiet .292/.365/.473, good for a .304 TAv.

Of course, Sanchez hasn’t drawn the most attention in South Florida this season; Ramirez’s .230/.319/.356 line has. While Ramirez's problems are similar to Werth's in that his BABIP and power numbers are far below his career norms, the fact that Ramirez's power has dipped for a season and a half and that there is a clearly defined culprit (his ground-ball rate is up to 53.7 percent this season compared to his career 44.4 percent) makes his “slump” more concerning. Given that the Marlins are like no other franchise in stinginess, there have been rumors about the club’s willingness to trade Ramirez to be rid of his attitude and the $46.5 million due to him for the next three seasons. There may still come a time for that, but if the Marlins want to get the most out of a Ramirez trade, this season cannot be the year they make the move.  

Michael Jong is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Michael's other articles. You can contact Michael by clicking here

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